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Report finds urban sprawl is fueling devastating wildfires

Housing near wildland areas makes fires worse
Photos: Southern California ravaged by wildfires
Posted at 11:07 AM, Jun 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-10 16:07:20-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- A new report from the Next 10, a non-partisan think tank at UC Berkeley, says California is getting it all wrong when it comes to building and rebuilding after wildfires.

The report, "Rebuilding for a Resilient Recovery," says urban sprawl leads to more devastating wildfires. It also says California isn't learning from past mistakes when trying to solve the housing crisis.

"We keep talking about the fire problem as if it's just a fire problem," says report co-author Prof. Robert Olshansky. "It's much more than a fire problem. It's a housing problem. It's an environmental problem. It's a financial problem... It's also an intensely traumatic, disruptive problem for (people's) lives with costs that we can't even begin to calculate."

In the last four years, California has seen 10 of its 15 most destructive fires ever. The report says urban sprawl is a major culprit for the destruction. It says putting new housing on the edges of town or in areas that are higher for wildfire risk leads to more wildfires while not solving the housing crisis.

"We build these houses at the edges, and then we lose them to fire," says Olshansky. "Those households then have to find other places to stay. So it doesn't solve the housing problem."

"The way to solve the housing problem is to build densely, in the middle of cities where we can protect them, and they're not going to get burned by the wildfires."

The report looked at three recent fires: the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, and the Camp Fire in Butte.

Researchers ran hypothetical case studies on potential ways to rebuild. They compared rebuilding as usual, a managed retreat with more density, and creating "resilience nodes" of dense housing in wildfire-prone areas.

They found that increasing density within existing urban footprints is the best way to avoid destructive wildfires.

"We wanted to look at the various consequences of those things," says Olshansky. "And also think about, realistically within the current web of California's existing policies and laws, what would be some realistic policy changes that might help to inch us towards some of those possibilities."

The study suggests that local and state governments do more to disincentivize urban sprawl and offer better incentives for dense development. It also says governments should invest more in wildfire planning and mitigation efforts for overgrown vegetation.

Olshansky says the money saved by not dealing with destructive wildfires would be enough to help subsidize more urban housing.

"There's a lot of cost of putting out the fires," he says. "But there's also the mitigation efforts, the home hardening, all the planning you have to do for preparedness ... If we could use some of those extraordinary costs and apply some of that as incentives for housing in already developed areas, we will be investing our money a lot more wisely."

The report notes that nearly 10% of all houses in California are in areas deemed a "high" fire risk. The authors say the state is courting disaster if it can't learn from the past.